Psalm 104: 14-23
Dr. Ken Peters
September 18, 2022
This coming Thursday, September 22 at 10:04 PM, summer will have ended, and that moment, 10:04 PM, will mark the fall equinox. That means that the sun will be setting astride the celestial equator. Last year our son John went down to Ecuador to see the Galapagos Islands, and like millions of tourists, he sent back a picture of himself with one foot north of the equator and the other foot south of it. There must be a million pictures of people doing that, and that is what the sun will be doing in the sky on September 22 at 10:04. One minute before that it will be in the southern hemisphere, one minute after, in the northern. The days and nights will be of equal length, twelve hours of each. That is what “equinox” means, “equal nights.”
Explaining all this is getting to be a habit. Every year, when everybody is at Mo Ranch, splashing around in the river on the last Sunday of summer, I get to be here, preaching about fall. I thought about just preaching last year’s sermon, but what if somebody remembered it? Not likely I grant you1 but occasionally, people tell me they remember something about one of my sermons. I don’t remember saying what they say I said, but maybe I did. So here we go again. It’s the Sunday before fall, the fall equinox.
Actually, you already know that I like being here, and the changing of the seasons, the movements of the sun and the moon and the stars, and other astronomical phenomena interests me, and always has. From childhood watching the skies has always captivated me, and if didn’t want to talk about the equinox, there are plenty of other texts and topics I could have chosen. Next year, if I am at Mo Ranch and Bobby is here, he can preach about something else. Today, you’re getting the fall equinox.
“Are there not twelve hours in a day?” Jesus once asked. It must have been at the time of the equinox, and in fact we know it was, because he said it just before his death, in the springtime of the year, about the time of the Passover, when the days and nights are of about equal length.
But soon the days will be getting shorter. And to people who lived in ancient times, that was a terrifying realization. I thought of that last December, when we were in Britain, traveling through the Salisbury Plain, to our ultimate destination, Stonehenge. The ancients assembled there, whoever they were, would have understood the significance of this day. Whatever Stonehenge was for, and we don’t know everything about that, it marked the summer and winter solstice and the spring and fall equinox. On September 22, anyone standing there would have known that summer had ended, that winter was coming on, and that the starving time was not far off. No more food could be grown. How would their livestock be fed? How would they feed themselves? The nights would soon be long and cold. Was there enough wood to keep from freezing? The wolves would be out. Not a comforting thought.
I don’t suppose we have much to worry about, not even with rising prices and lengthened food chains, and all the rest of it. The supermarkets will have something to eat, not the specialty items we want, perhaps, perhaps not even some things we really need, but somehow, I expect, we will get by. I don’t think the wolves are going to be out, much less at out front door, and here in Texas we should be warm enough, although one never knows. We certainly weren’t warm enough February a year and a half ago.
So the nights will be longer, but perhaps there is a blessing in that. For one thing, the longer nights remind us that not every problem can be solved quickly and easily, or as the result of conscious effort. Some problems have to be thought about; either that, or they have to be left alone.
Now I know how that goes against the grain. If I know anything about most of you, it is that if there is a problem, you want to solve it. Now. Most people are like that. I am, most of the time, anyway. So let’s start to work on it. Strike while the iron is hot, carpe diem, seize the day. Let’s get a committee together. The thing has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let the middle be as short a time as possible. Let’s get started and get to the end. “There are twelve hours in a day,” Jesus said, “so while there is light, you must work.” Well, he’s right. While there is light we ought to be working. Working on a problem has everything to recommend it.
But some problems can’t be solved just by working on them. They have to be thought about. They have to be given time to rest. If fruit trees are going to bear fruit they have to have time to rest, and the long nights and the colder weather help them do that.
It is the same with fruit we are expected to bear. Walter Prescott Webb, perhaps the greatest historian of the American West and Professor of History at the University of Texas, took 30 years writing his magnum opus, The Great Frontier. For about twenty-five of those years he didn’t write anything. To the casual observer he wasn’t doing anything, sitting with his boots on his desk, staring off into the distance. Someone asked him about that: “What were you doing? They asked. “I was thinking about it,” he said. “I needed time to think about it.”
“The sun knows its time for setting.”
I don’t know how long it took me to realize that. I don’t know how much effort I wasted laboring over a problem I wasn’t able to solve. It needed time, and time is exactly what I was unwilling to give it. But time passed, it has a way of doing that, you know. I got older, hopefully wiser, and now I am able to think about certain things more creatively and productively than when I wasn’t ready to do that.
There is another set of implications here, relating not so much to our intellect as to our emotions. It is very good for us to lay aside the passions of the day, and to seek the moderating influence if the night. That is precisely what Paul is telling is here in the book of Ephesians: “Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts,” he says, “and be renewed in the spirit of your minds … Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Let me repeat that” “Do not let the sun go down on your anger … Let no evil talks come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear,” and above all, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.”
Have you ever wondered why the Jewish sabbath begins at night, not on Saturday morning, but Friday night? I love how the book of Genesis puts this: God Called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day … Evening and morning, a second day … Evening and morning, a third … The day begins not in the evening, but in the morning. During these longer nights, we might do well to remember that.
Pascal, the great French philosopher and mathematician of the 17th century, once said that many of the evils of the world would be prevented if people would stop and be quiet for thirty minutes. Well, that is difficult to do during the day. But perhaps we could do at night. John Silber, another philosopher and educator of our own time, once said that the greatest gift any people ever gave to civilization was the Jewish sabbath. Can you imagine, he asked, the good that has come from resting one day of the week, evening and morning, the first day? How many quarrels have been avoided? How many grudges and vendettas have been given up? How many animals have been saved from being worked to death? How many people? Recalling Paul, how much evil has not come from our mouths, and how have we not grieved the Holy Spirit?
Last, there is this: There is a sense in which God cannot be rushed. Concerning the things of the Spirit ,there are some things which cannot be pressed, that it is better to pray about them, and wait for them, and let God deal with them in his own way.
I don’t know of any better example of this than the experience of John Wesley. For years, as a child, as a student at Oxford, as an ordained priest, as a failed missionary, as a failure returned to England – for years he drove himself to gain a sense of redemption that was not his to earn. The harder he worked, the more he failed, and the more he failed, the harder he worked. Finally, one night – note that, one night-he went “quite unwillingly” to Aldersgate, and there his heart was strangely warmed. He felt that he really did believe, and that he really was saved.
Now, what happened, something Wesley did? I suppose the argument between Methodists and Presbyterians about free will and the election will go on forever, but in this instance, at least, we have won the skirmish. Wesley says he went quite unwillingly to Aldersgate, that was all he did. What happened there was something God did. So was all his work a waste? Was all that effort for naught?
So was all that work a waste? Was all that effort for naught? I am not prepared to say that. I am not God. But what can be said is that God was not going to be rushed into giving Wesley what he was so feverishly and desperately working to achieve. On a lighter note, and perhaps it is the lighter note we ought to be sounding here, I once knew a woman who had this problem which was literally worrying her to distraction. She had tried everything, and nothing worked. Finally, in desperation, she said she was going to give the problem to God – for two weeks – and after that she was going to take it back over. Well, God is his own Timekeeper, said. God is his own Time Keeper. “But do not ignore this one fact,’1 the scriptures say, “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his purposes, as some count slowness, but it forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
One of my favorite poems is “Good-By and Keep Cold,’1 by Robert Frost. It is about a farmer who is leaving his orchard to the winter. It isn’t the cold that worries him, it is unexpected warmth:
No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it mustn’t get warm.
The farmer has done all he can do:
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight When slowly (and nobody comes with a light) Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.
So, something has to be left to God, and that is a very good thing, something for us to think about and be grateful for on these shorter days and longer nights. Amen.